Why I left academia after getting my PhD

I am a community marine ecologist by training. My PhD consisted of me driving a boat to conduct fieldwork in a wetsuit in Moorea, French Polynesia. Now, I am a Research Staff Member at the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI), a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). So how did I get from the Indo-Pacific to Washington D.C.? Let me start from the beginning…

Like many kids at some point in their childhood, I wanted to be a marine ecologist when I grew up. Something about the ocean has always called out to me and at 12 years old, I thought that this would mean I get to play with dolphins all day. (I am still slightly sad this isn’t true.) To make my dream a reality, I did what any kid would do—I somehow convinced my parents to let me get SCUBA certified at the age of 14. I jumped at the opportunity to study abroad in Australia during my junior year as an undergrad so I could dive the Great Barrier Reef, and by the time senior year rolled around, I applied to a handful of marine ecology graduate programs with an aim of working on coral reefs. I should mention at this point, that in addition to fulfilling my childhood dreams of becoming a marine ecologist, what I also really wanted was to become a professor at a small liberal arts college. I was incredibly lucky to have had wonderful, influential teachers throughout high school and college and that first hand experience of seeing what kind of impact a teacher can have on a student was eye opening. I wanted to make that kind of positive impact so a career goal of becoming a professor at small liberal arts college seemed like the perfect fit.

I entered the first year of my PhD program feeling absolutely confident and assured that at the end of 6 years, I would have my PhD in hand bolstered by lots of teaching experience and go straight into a tenured-track position at a small liberal arts college ready to make a difference in students’ lives. And as you have already gathered, that did not quite happen. I did get my PhD, and I did have a lot of teaching experience. But other things also happened, things I did not expect.

One, I realized that I actually like doing research. I loved it, in fact. This surprised me more than anything because going into grad school, I viewed research more as a “thing that professors had to do” in addition to the things I actually liked—teaching, mentoring students, developing curriculum, etc. Once I found out that I actually liked research, this inevitably led to…Two, the realization that I have a short attention span. My dissertation research was interesting and I very much enjoyed it, but there was still an itch I couldn’t quite scratch with just that one research topic. I was, and still am, interested in applying my scientific skills to other research areas and disciplines so I started looking for other research opportunities. Luckily for me, my university (University of California, Santa Barbara) had a few NSF-funded centers that provided research opportunities for graduate students. I ended up working for two centers—one ecology based (the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis) and one social science based (the Center for Nanotechnology in Society). Both of these centers helped shape me as a researcher and pushed me to go beyond my research comfort level. Being able to work on multiple research projects and in such different disciplines resulted in…Three, realizing that I did not want to be limited intellectually by the confines of academia. This was the hardest truth for me to accept and it took a few years for me to truly come to grips with it. Too few of us ever hear that it is okay to let go of a dream, especially when it is one that we have been working towards and chasing for so long. Changing that expectation of what you thought you would become is difficult even when you find something more fitting. I love ecology but it is not the only discipline I loved any more.

When I finished my PhD, I jumped at the opportunity to continue on as a post-doc at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society. I was a part of an interdisciplinary research team that studied how China science and technology (S&T) policy affected nanotechnology development within the country. My post-doc exposed me to different research methodologies that I would, most likely, never have used in ecology: dealing with human subjects; designing and administering surveys; conducting interviews with subject matter experts, etc.

All of these experiences together led me to look for a position where I can do research on a variety of topics, not just ecology. I considered quite a few think tanks but nothing fit quite right. My husband encouraged me to wait until I found a job that allowed me to do what I wanted to do. Even at that time I knew I was in an incredibly fortunate position where I could make that choice. We had a great life in Santa Barbara, my husband had a steady job, we had a place of our own, and it was where all of our friends were so it didn’t make a lot of sense to us to move for me to take a temporary job somewhere that was not a good fit. I applied to one other position at the same time I applied to STPI. When people ask me what my back up plan was if both of them fell through, I am honest about it—I was thinking about trying my hand at getting a store manager job at Trader Joe’s or Costco (did you know that store managers at Trader Joe’s make more than $90,000 a year?).

STPI obviously did hire me. I work on an average of 4-6 research projects at any given time with colleagues whose backgrounds span all disciplines from physiology to computer science to history to engineering to anthropology, to name a few. In addition to OSTP, I also have the opportunity to work with other Federal agencies and offices. My job is not at all close to what I had envisioned for myself when I entered grad school 13 years ago, but I do feel absolutely confident that what I do makes an impact.

My path to where I am now was not a straight line. I think when most of us hear people talk about their careers and how they got there, it all seems so straightforward. But it’s not a clean-cut path for most people (maybe it is for a few lucky individuals out there) and that is normal. Keep doing the things you care about, try new things, and don’t let anyone or anything hold you back from what you want to do. Paths are only clear in hindsight so if you feel a little muddled right now, know that you are not alone.


Xueying Shirley Han, PhD

Research Staff Member

IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute